The Intimacy of Listening

When we lead others, we enter into a unique relationship. In fact, with every single person we interact with, this happens. And the most important of business relationships are those you have with the people in your team.

Relationships are a curious thing, for they require a concerted effort on both sides, yet can be heavily influenced by one side alone. And when you lead others, that is you.

For you want and need strong relationships with every single member of your team, so you have to work at it at least a little. Relationships can seem to be challenging and for many leaders, they fall down trying too hard – or, more commonly, not enough - at this one leadership skill that will make or break you.

Throughout organisations, leaders fail – and this drives cultural failure too - because they don’t make enough effort on the people side. They may be target-driven champions; or strategic master-planners, yet when they try to get things done super-effectively by their people, there is a gap.

Their capability to build effective relationships with people is what lets them down. Where organisations fail to appreciate this value in a leader, the organisational culture as a whole becomes ineffective (toxic even) and progress slows, or worse, as with many leading organisations in the last 50 years, fails altogether with sometimes catastrophic effect.

Driving the relationship-building skill is not that complicated, yet professional leaders so often glue up their capabilities by failing to see their employees as one particular thing, and one thing only.

They are People.

Failing to take the time to acknowledge that all of your people are humans with the psyche that has wants and needs, with social and emotional connection requirements is a bad mistake.

Resolution is easy.

Listen to them. It doesn’t matter what you listen to them about – just listen to them.

But there is a twist.

You have to listen to them and create intimate relationships with them, for this to be as effective for you as it can be. To make the very most of the relationship requires a shift in your behaviour. You have to fully engage with them as you listen.

You can’t get away with token listening; or listening with an answer formed already in your head; or with other things on your mind. To listen intimately and to make the very best of the relationship you have with every one of your people, you have to set aside absolutely everything you have going on for you – including your ego – in that brain of yours, while you listen.

I call it ‘Getting to Know the name of Their Dog’, from an example I had from my own leadership role.

One of my team had a dog they doted on. It was her pride and joy and the love of her – and her husbands – life. So, once in a while, I made time to ask about the dog. I didn’t drag her away from her workplace to my office for a half hour conversation about the dog, but naturally, in conversation with her (as I did with many of my team regularly – another article in itself), I occasionally asked about the dog. Authentically interested in her, I could see what my interest meant to her and it added to my repository of knowledge I had about all my team.

Then, when the time came for me to need help, I guess she was more open to listen too. Because I had worked a little at listening intimately.

But where her passion was, I had to be there fully, uninterrupted externally or internally for her, in that intimate relationship moment.

Half measure won’t do. It has to be 100%. Every leader can do this easily, once they shake off the things going on in their head, important though they might be.

Because however important anything might seem to be, nothing is as important for a leader as the relationships with every one of their people.

There’s a very cool little chapter about this at the very end of George Pransky’s fine book, ‘The Relationship Handbook’.

But be warned, if you read it, all the other relationships in your life might change for the better too.

Martin Haworth
Martin Haworth